(AINA) -- The story is familiar to readers of the Bible. God instructs Jonah to go preach to the people of Nineveh, capital of Assyria. Jonah refuses and boards a ship bound for Tarshish. But it is very hard to run away or hide from God. God sends a great storm and Jonah is cast overboard, where he is swallowed by a whale and delivered three days later to Nineveh. There he preaches, and his message is accepted. The Assyrians repent.
That was in the 7th century BC.
In the 6th century AD a great plague hits the Assyrians in north Mesopotamia (present day north Iraq). Assyrians are Christians at this time, and have been so since 33 AD, when Thomas converted them only four months after the Crucifixion. Assyrians were the first converts to Christianity outside of the Apostles and Disciples.
Prayers are offered to God to help with the plague. The Assyrian church, recalling Jonah's visit to Assyria almost exactly 1000 years earlier, asks Assyrians to hold a fast for salvation, and the Assyrians do, and the plague subsides. Thus began Jonah's fast.
The Rogation of the Ninevites, as it is known, is observed by all Assyrian church denominations as well as most other Eastern churches (Maronite, Ethiopian, Coptic, Eritrean). It is a three day fast, from February 14 to 16, where no food or drink is consumed. In Assyrian tradition, on the third night, just before going to sleep, young men and woman eat a handful of parched barley and salt (called pokhoon). If the man or woman dreams of a person offering them water that will be the person they may possibly marry.
In the 21st century a different kind of plague has hit the Assyrians: genocide -- a relentless campaign to exterminate the Assyrians (report), and all other Christians, from the Middle East. It has recently begun again in Iraq with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but it has been ongoing since the advent of Islam in 630 AD.
Thirty genocides, large and small, have been committed against Assyrians by Muslims since 630 AD (see here). The Turkish genocide of Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks in World War One claimed the lives of 750,000 Assyrians (75%), as well as 1.5 million Armenians and 500,000 Greeks.
We can calculate the average time between genocides committed against Assyrians in the interval 661 AD to 1992 AD, and that is (1992-661)/30=45 years. Every 45 years on average there has been genocide against Assyrians by Muslims. It is even worse in the modern period. From 1842 to 1992 there were 13 genocides; the average interval for that period is (1992-1842)/13=11.5 years.
What should Christians do about this continuing holocaust? How should the Christian world address the immediate problem of Assyrians in Iraq today?
58 Catholic Assyrians were massacred On October 31 in Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad. This was the latest incident. A genocide has been ongoing in Iraq since June 26, 2004, when the first church was bombed. 66 churches have been bombed since then, and thousands of Assyrians killed. Nearly 50% of Assyrians have fled to Syria and Jordan (report).
Click here for pictures from inside Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Church. WARNING: violent, graphic images.
The mood of the Assyrians in Iraq is now of flight. If they could, Assyrians would leave Iraq today en masse. Should this be allowed to happen? Should the oldest Christian community be allowed to disappear from its cradle? Should Assyrians, who have lived continuously in their ancestral lands since 4750 BC, be allowed to leave to perhaps never return again?
The Assyrians accepted the word of God, as delivered by Jonah, 700 years before the coming of Christ. Assyrians were the first to accept Christ. Jonah's message was of repentance and it was heeded. Christ's message was of love and it was heeded. The Assyrian church endeavored in the most remarkable missionary enterprise in Christian history, reaching to China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan and the Philippines. The Mongolian alphabet is based on Aramaic. The Buddhist ecclesiastical structure is modeled on the Assyrian Church of the East. "Torah Borah" is Aramaic for "arid mountain."
The Assyrians accepted Jonah and his message from God, and for this God made them "the work of my hands" [Isaiah 19:23-25] and the "rod of my anger" [Isaiah 10:5]. He also assigned to them a task to be completed upon the Second Advent: The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. [Matthew 12:41]
Christendom must stand united in defense of Christians, and in particular the Assyrians of Iraq. Let it begin with a simple gesture: let all Christian churches observe the Rogation of the Ninevites this year, in solidarity with their Christian brethren, the Assyrians of Iraq, who are on the frontline of the clash of Islam with Christianity.
When the Muslims entered Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad on October 31, they shot at the Cross until it disintegrated; they immediately shot Father Tha'ir; one of them approached Father Wasim, standing behind the pulpit, and in response to Father Wasim's request that he join him in prayer he detonated his suicide belt, killing Father Wasim and many others; they shot the parishioners while taunting them that they will go to hell as infidels; they shouted "Alahu akbar!" as they detonated their suicide belts; they demanded the release of two Christian women in Egypt whom they mistakenly believed to have converted to Islam and who were being held against their will by Egyptian Christians. The Muslims who committed the massacre were thinking purely in religious terms. They acted in defense of Islam and (in their minds) of two persecuted Muslim women in another country.
It is time for Christians to unite and come to the defense of Assyrians and Christendom, and to stop the Islamic onslaught.
Ashur Shirsha, an Assyrian from Iraq, is a contributing columnist to AINA.